02 Nov 2008
Boston Baroque’s Xerxes shows the way
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
Is Boston Baroque period performance’s best kept secret?
Certainly, Martin Pearlman’s band has been out there on CD as well as live performance since 1973, but somehow, they’ve never quite garnered the international renown that is more than their due. Perhaps that is down to the very nature of their home city — sequestered as they are in leafy streets and squares, an academic island insulated from the hue and cry of New York’s glitzier scene — let alone the period powerhouses across the Atlantic. Perhaps it is just their choice? If so, that’s lucky for their European competitors, some of whom might have to look to their laurels.
Boston Baroque have a fine record of producing Handelian opera with limited space and resources and with their most recent Xerxes, presented semi-staged by first-time opera director Paul Peers in the fine acoustic of Jordan Hall, (seating 1100), they have succeeded again. The key to this Xerxes was the integration of a fine cast of mainly young singers with a band that has this musical idiom in their very fibre, and a lean semi-staging by Paul Peers that used the limited space to good effect without making the mistake of imposing too much business onto music and a sparkling libretto that doesn’t need it. The musicians were seated centrally on the stage, and the singers moved around, behind and in front of them, using various exits (and the auditorium itself occasionally) to give visual variety. Dress was modern, unexciting but acceptable.
If Handel didn’t have much success with this opera at its London opening (it only lasted 5 nights) and was soon moving on into the more reliable world of oratorio, this is no reflection on his genius. It was simply that Xerxes was just too explorative, too outré, too challenging in its musical design, for the opera seria buffs of 1738. For a start, many of the arias don’t follow the set pattern of A-B-A of the time; there are less formal, more flowing sections of arioso and chatty recitative that move the action forward without so many regular stops for star-vehicle arias. And there is, of course, with the Elviro servant character, out and out comedy, almost buffo, that hardly fitted the pattern of the day. There is the usual romantic cats-cradle of mistaken identity, forbidden love, and jealousies of course, but this is a more tender, more emotional, exploration of humanity’s foibles than Handel often pursued.
The casting of baroque opera in the USA is less problematic than it used to be back when Boston Baroque was in the vanguard of period performance. More conservatories are now including period performance practice in their curricula, but it’s still not mainstream in the way that it often is in the capitals of Europe. For young singers fighting for work in America it’s tough, and they have to be adaptable — and take every opportunity to learn from specialists like Martin Pearlman and Boston Baroque. This particular cast was, by and large, — considering the results — surprisingly inexperienced in the genre: the more to their, and Pearlman’s credit.
On the female side, only soprano Amanda Forsythe as the foxy, feisty Atalanta, forever interfering, could be described as au fait with Handel and if she was tempted on occasion to over-egg the comedy, it was an appealing performance that showcased some brilliant highwire work. Equally pleasing to the ear was mezzo Leah Wood in the difficult role of the wronged and rather out-of-sorts Amastre, although a little more volume might have helped her in her more declamatory music which she sang with commitment and a warm steady tone throughout. Marie Lenormand took the role of prince Arsamenes, often these days sung successfully by countertenors, and although she sang with great expressiveness her soft-grained mezzo soprano and natural femininity of movement rather prevented her from fully inhabiting the character — a lovely young singer, but rather miscast here. An exciting voice for the future is talented Texan soprano Ava Pine who sang the role of Romilda, beloved by both King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes. She belied her inexperience in the genre to give a riveting performance that grew with every scene, her richly expressive soprano under fine control throughout, with plenty of dynamic on tap when needed.
With the male performers, without doubt the star of the show was male soprano Michael Maniaci in the title role. Maniaci, experienced in both baroque and classical style, has a growing and deserved reputation as a fine young singer with some recent major successes both in North America and Europe (his Armando in the recently released DVD of the Fenice production of Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto caused quite a stir), and this was his first attempt at a role which up to now has almost always, for obvious reasons, gone to period-specialist mezzos. It was the right decision as the role was perfect for his dark-hued soprano; it would be good to hear him as Xerxes again elsewhere, or even recorded at some future date. He has a unique timbre, with power to spare, a great facility for coloratura at dizzying heights and yet also the ability to spin long lines with tender expressivity when required. If Maniaci had the showpieces, then Michael Scarcelle enjoyed the comic possibilities of the servant Elviro, his agile dark baritone flipping up easily into pantomime falsetto and his athletic figure skipping easily up and down the auditorium steps for the “drag” scene of the “flower-seller”. Supporting the whole pyramid of Handelian voices was the resonant bass of Mark Schnaible as the dopey general Ariodate; it was good to hear this role sung by a low voice in its prime. The chorus of Boston Baroque sang and marched confidently as required, their obvious facility with the genre matching their excellent intonation and diction.
Throughout all, Martin Pearlman, conducting (when not pestered by Atalanta) his 25-strong band with verve, precision and great rhythm, kept a supporting eye and ear out for his singers and got the dynamic balance exactly right. This was high-class Handel, and if only Boston got to hear it for two nights, then that was Boston’s good fortune.
Sue Loder © 2008